Colorado isn’t planning to let people vote from prison any time soon, but about 9,000 convicted felons could win back their right to vote in time for the 2019 election.
A bill moving its way through the Capitol would re-enfranchise felons who are out on parole.
An examination by the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Council found that the bill — House Bill 1266, sponsored by Denver Rep. Leslie Herod in the House and Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg of Boulder — would re-enfranchise at least 9,297 people by June of this year, and hundreds more by 2020. Voters across the state will decide in November on countless municipal issues and candidates, plus as many as four statewide spending measures.
Argued Fenberg, “This is an incredibly important bill. … I think this is about democracy, how we want to treat people, how we approach rehabilitation and, frankly, the rights and freedoms for people who have served their time in the criminal justice system.”
Whether parolees have indeed “served their time” is up for debate. Some 20,000 people in Colorado are in prisons, according to the state Department of Corrections. But another 10,000, roughly, have been released from prison either temporarily or permanently on parole, on the premise of good behavior. Parolees are not incarcerated but they are still serving out sentences under supervision of the state.
“In essence, (they) really haven’t finished that sentence for a crime yet,” argued Sterling Republican Jerry Sonnenberg, the lone dissenting vote in the Senate’s State, Veterans, & Military Affairs Committee, which passed HB-1266 by a 4-1 vote last week, leaving the bill just a couple procedural steps from reaching the governor’s desk for final passage into law. Herod said she’s gotten no indication Polis might veto the bill if it gets to him, though the governor hasn’t affirmatively stated his support.
“We’re reviewing the bill,” Polis spokeswoman Laurie Cipriano said. “No decision has been made.”
Fenberg responded to Sonnenberg, “These are people that are not deemed to be dangerous, people that have been deemed OK to be released.”
Colorado ranks in the middle of the pack nationally for its laws on restoring voting rights for felons.
In Maine and Vermont, felons never lose the right to vote, including when they’re in prison. On the other end of the spectrum, Iowa and Kentucky permanently disenfranchise convicted felons.
Fourteen other states and the District of Columbia forbid incarcerated felons from voting, but re-enfranchise them once they are released. This is the group that Colorado would join if HB-1266 passes. Right now, Colorado is one of 22 states that strips voting rights from felons who have not completed their sentences; that policy applies to felons out on parole, as well as incarcerated people. In other words, a person who is released on parole but still has, say, 13 months left on his or her sentence, currently can’t cast a ballot until that 13 months is up. This bill would allow the person to vote as soon as he or she is paroled.
Colorado does currently allow parolees to pre-register to vote, but HB-1266 would be a quantum leap for that group’s ability to participate in democracy.
Colorado parolees are already, in many cases, participating in society and in government. They just don’t get to vote.
“These are people who are living, working, paying taxes in the community,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, an expert on voting rights and an attorney in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York. “These are people sending their kids to public schools, who don’t have a say on who’s on their school boards. They’re paying taxes, but they don’t have a say in who gets to levy those taxes.”
Offered Herod, who has been perhaps the most prolific lawmaker this session in terms of sponsorship of criminal justice reforms, “Parolees are in our communities. They’re doing all the things that any other person is doing in Colorado.”
A study by the Florida Parole Commission — historically one of the country’s most notoriously restrictive such bodies — found that ex-prisoners who regain the right to vote are one-third as likely to recidivate as inmates who do not regain that right upon release.
Yet another quantum leap would see Colorado restore voting rights for all felons. Inspired by varying opinions expressed by 2020 presidential candidates, a national debate has raged this week over whether the rest of America should follow the lead of Maine and Vermont.
In Colorado, U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner weighed in on the matter, tweeting that such a policy would allow terrorists to vote, and posting photos of several notorious criminals to drive home his point that those who seek to re-enfranchise all felons would be handing voting rights to people convicted of terrible crimes.
Secretary of State Jena Griswold, the state’s top elections official and a possible candidate to run against Gardner in 2020, would not clearly answer one way or another when asked Thursday if she believes incarcerated Coloradans should get to vote.
“My personal opinion is that terrorists should not be able to vote and that the conversation has dropped to the place of ridiculousness,” she said, blasting Gardner in the process.
Griswold did say, however, that she supports HB-1266. So does the Colorado County Clerks Association, which represents the top elections officials in each county.
Herod indicated she’d be interested in exploring re-enfranchisement for incarcerated Coloradans, but she and several other reform-minded lawmakers at the Capitol said Thursday they have no sense that there’s any political will to pursue such a move in the near future.